“I love you. Now I know I can finish this film!”-R.W. Fassbinder to production manager Peter Berling on the set of Whity.
Whity (1970) is a first in many respects for its writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. For one, it is a Western, a genre of filmmaking foreign to Fassbinder. But it is also Fassbinder’s biggest production up to 1970, costing about 680,000DM and shot in vibrant color on 35mm CinemaScope film stock. For Fassbinder this was a tremendous move away from the small productions and formalist exercises of his previous films. Whity is also the first of Fassbinder’s films where the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the films of Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, cannot be felt in Fassbinder’s approach and at times appropriation of classic American cinema.
Whity takes its name from the film’s central character (played by Günter Kaufmann), the black valet and illegitimate son to Nicholson (played by American B-Movie star Ron Randell). Eventually, Whity rebels against his father and brothers (played by Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel) as well as Nicholson’s manipulative young bride (Katrin Schaake), killing them all in cold blood with a revolver. After these executions, Whity runs off with his saloon singer girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), only to presumably die of thirst in the desert.
Whity (1970) marks Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last production with his own antitheater-X Films as a result of personal differences among many of his Anti-Theater collaborators, with whom Fassbinder had worked on all of his previous films. Fassbinder himself was in the midst of emotional turmoil. His lover and the star of Whity, Günter Kaufmann, had begun breaking away from the director sexually and emotionally. As a direct result of this Fassbinder began exhibiting violent behavior toward his crew, climaxing with two physical altercations. First with production manager Peter Berling, and second with the production’s script girl. In both cases Fassbinder was beaten by his adversaries, most memorably by the film’s two stuntmen. Fassbinder’s personal situation is essential to understanding the themes of Whity as well as providing a biographical context for the film in the author’s life.
For Fassbinder Whity is a film whose central concern is American Romanticism in the classic Hollywood tradition. In one respect Whity is a deconstruction of the Romantic elements of Raoul Walsh’s film Band Of Angels (1957). For much like Band Of Angels, Whity’s central narrative is melodramatic and centered on the power struggles within a family unit. But Whity also grapples with the tradition of the movies romanticizing American history, effectively transposing the melo-dramatic narrative devices of Walsh’s film into the heightened camp environment of Nicolas Ray’s masterpiece Johnny Guitar (1954).
Thus, as a genre picture, Whity makes two essential gestures of deconstruction. Firstly, Fassbinder’s narrative is as preposterous as that of Band Of Angels. But to strengthen the artifice of this narrative proposition, Fassbinder slows down all of the character interactions with an almost novelistic approach. Characters react with delay to reveals to the audience, often accompanied by slow camera moves whose composition and accompanying score raise the tension to Wagnerian heights and a sort of dream like reality. In this way the mechanisms of Romantic story telling in Western genre filmmaking become clear to the viewer, challenging the audience to question their necessity to accept these mechanisms in the context of film as truth.
Secondly, Fassbinder will visually quote the trademark close-ups of Sergio Leone’s westerns. This technique imbues Whity with self-awareness indicative of New German Cinema. Yet, what is of primary importance concerning this quotation is the implication that Westerns are just as essential to the mythos of European cinema as they are to the American cinema. By 1970 westerns had been part of the standard regimen of B-movie production in Germany for the better part of five years. And it is during those five years, just as it occurred simultaneously in Italy; the Western became assimilated into the collective national consciousness. This means that in Germany, as well as Italy, the Western genre existed as entertainment for the masses, the working class, functioning as a tool for communal unity. This signifies a conscious effort on Fassbinder’s part to endow the genre, by making an intellectual Western, with a political relevance to contemporary West Germany, even going so far as to illuminate the pitfalls of leftist thinking among the working classes, primarily the growing Anarchist movement.
Whity is not, however, exclusively bound to the American cinema via its genre but also by it’s depiction of female sexuality and in particular one sexual relationship within the film. The relationship between the valet Whity (Günter Kaufmann) and the singer/prostitute Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) is derivative of the relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Fassbinder’s favorite film by Josef von Sternberg Morocco (1930). What attracts Dietrich and Schygulla to their male suitors above all others is their simplicity and their romantic devotion. This is essential to the theme of Whity, that it is Whity’s intellectual simplicity and his willingness to accommodate his mistress that he in turn can be controlled and eventually (though the film never sees this through) oppressed by her. This is an undercurrent that runs throughout Fassbinder’s work, that there are two kinds of people, the oppressor and the oppressed. Fassbinder proposes that one needs the other, and that even when one relationship of this sort is destroyed (as it is in Whity), either the oppressed or the oppressor must then carry on the symbiotic relationship with a suitable opposite.
That relationship is in turn the center of Fassbinder’s political message within the film. One can therefore assume, given Fassbinder’s fear and disdain toward West Germany’s Anarchist movement that this message is for them. In fact, Fassbinder saw the Anarchists much in the same way he saw the protagonist of his film, as short sighted and prone to violent action and martyrdom that does not permanently resolve any conflict nor does it achieve any sort of solution. The paradox described in the above paragraph applies again to either Whity or the Anarchists. If one is oppressed and violently removes the oppressor, then one will inevitably seek out a way in which to be oppressed again. So to continue the metaphor proposed in a political reading of Whity, the Nicholson’s are representative of the conservative West German government.
For all the points I make about Whity above, the film has largely been either misread or dismissed for its affiliations with the Western Genre. Even when the film premiered at the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival the film was received with a cool reserve. Admittedly, Whity is a difficult film in many respects, but it is the many parts of its whole that allow the film to transcend the tropes of your standard deconstructionist Western, becoming a film of the highest order much in the same way Robert Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1976) did with French Romanticism.